Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2019 The Fairy Harp – Part One

Fairy harp sirr_harp_wilde_fig159Sirr Harp, Robert Wilde

A Harp

Thalia insisted on bringing Melissa to Megan’s By the Green, a good restaurant, but Thalia had a not-so-good reason in mind.

A good reason, I can cite, is to celebrate Melissa’s birthday.

A good reason, in Thalia’s mind, is that they serve pizza.

A good reason, this being an up-scale restaurant, is that they serve an up-scale pizza.

The up-scale pizza we order, labeled The Veggie One, contains sweet potatoes, rocola, feta, pine nuts, mozzarella and tomato, all on a sourdough crust. We go over the top with toppings, adding mushrooms and red onion.

The not-so-good reason we sit in Megan’s By the Green—and both Melissa and I know this—is Thalia’s desire to see the ceiling.

I am being a little hard on Thalia. The ceiling is a reason to come here. It appears to be alive with dark vines and branches, laden with white roses and interspersed with small fairy lights. Thalia basks in the gentle glow that permeates the room. I am but in mind of Sleeping Beauty’s rose briar-protected castle.

“While we wait for the extraordinary pizza,” Melissa says, pointing to the ceiling, “I have memorized a story for us, in recognition of the fairy lights.”

Delight creases Thalia’s face and I settle back to enjoy.

“It’s called The Fairy Harp.” Melissa pauses a second to collect her thoughts.

Melissa tells us of a company of fairies in the habit of going around from cottage to cottage to judge the welcome given to them. Bad luck followed the cottagers who were not gracious, but good luck followed those who gave the strangers a warm welcome.

Old Morgan ap Rhys sat one night in his chimney-corner all alone, as his wife was out, entertaining himself with his tobacco pipe and some ale, and by singing. His singing was only notable in that a bard had offended Morgan by describing that voice as similar to the yelping of a blind dog that has lost its way.

Thalia giggles at that.

Morgan had reached a crescendo in his song when there came a knocking at the door. Delighted with the prospect of someone to listen to him, he shouted for the visitor to come in.

In came three fairies, disguised as travel-stained weary men asking for a little bit of food, to test Morgan’s treatment of strangers. Morgan points them to his table on which is bread and cheese, entreating them to help themselves and take more for the road. Just as generous, he sings to them for their entertainment.

“What did the fairies think of his singing?” Thalia grins.

“The story does not tell us,” Melissa says. “But if his manners and singing were rough, the fairies appreciated his good intent.”

The fairies, on departing, offered to grant him one wish. Morgan, although he thinks it a joke, declared he’d like a harp that plays merry tunes no matter how he plucks the strings. The fairies disappear and there is the harp.

Morgan is playing the harp when his wife and some friends come home and immediately begin to dance about. It seems anyone who hears the harp is compelled to dance. The news of Morgan’s fairy harp soon spreads about and many come to listen to his music and to dance.

One day, the very bard who had so insulted Morgan came to hear the fairy harp. Morgan reaped his revenge by playing his harp faster and faster until the dancing bard broke both his legs.

“By the next morning,” Melissa ends the tale, “the fairy harp disappeared, never to be seen again.”

Thalia applauds, and on cue our pizza appears.

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2019 The Fairy Harp – Part Two

Fairy harp the-wedding-of-kloris-and-roosje-ken-welsh Welsh Wedding

The Pizza

The pizza, for all its odd ingredients, tastes quite good. Thalia revels in her culinary experience, justifying all the scheming to talk us into coming here.

“What attracted you to that story?” I ask Melissa. “I suspect it is from The Welsh Fairy Book, by Thomas.”

“Wow, this is so good,” Melissa addresses the pizza rather than my question.

I munch and wait.

“The fairy harp lies at the center of my attraction to this tale. But, really, it’s not about the harp.”

Her comment stalls here for a bit. I let her indulge in our meal and do not pry.

Eventually she says, “Our relationship with the fair folk is complicated.”

“The fair folk,” I take note. “That term includes more than the fairies, leprechauns, and such.”

“The shee,” nods Melissa, “all those beings from the Tuatha De Danaan to Thalia’s fairy. They populate our dreams, our fears, and our uncertainties at the same time they live in the fairy mounds and sometimes our bedrooms.” Here she points to Thalia. “They are the ‘other’ to whom we will never quite reconcile.”

“You make that sound uncomfortable,” I venture.

“And so it should be. Although the stuff of our dreams, they keep us from falling asleep and never awakening.”

“I don’t follow you,” I say.

“I mean ‘falling asleep’ metaphorically. If the fairies were not here, if they did not troop through the terrain of our subconscious, or on the winds of a stormy night, our species would become complacent, thinking there is nothing to challenge our superiority, and we would slip into unawareness.

This pizza is really good. Its flavor is growing on me.

“The fairy harp represents .  .  . ?” I prod.

Melissa takes another bit and hesitates before answering. Thalia, I know, is not listening to us at all as she reaches for another slice.

“The harp was a gift and a challenge. Because of Morgan’s generosity, the fairies gave him a harp that played of its own, but played such music that no one could refrain from dancing. Morgan had the power to delight and entertain. He seemed content with this until the bard with the sharp tongue appeared again. Morgan used the power of his harp to harm a fellow musician. After that, the harp is gone.

“Morgan’s challenge?” Melissa takes another bit. “To recognize there are rules and understand the rules without being told. Morgan’s failure is our failure. So many times, over and over, no one has told us the rules and we have not asked.”

“The unspoken rules,” I say to myself, looking at Thalia who sits back on her chair, her hand on her stomach.

“This is what I mean by ‘falling asleep.’” Melissa continues. “We accept our gifts but neglect to seek out the rules. Too often we use our gifts for wrong purposes and may lose them, when we should be using those very gifts to explore the rules.”

“Wait,” I say, “you describe what sounds to me like the creative process. Is all my creativity inspired by the fairies giving me challenges?”

“I like that,” Melissa muses. “Maybe, maybe.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2019 The Fairy Harp – Part Three

Fairy harp Fairies at Market

Wait Again

Melissa and I linger in my study over our glasses of malbec. Thalia, soporific from the consumption of too much pizza, slumbers on my lap. I am happy she heard a story earlier this evening. She faded long before I could tell her one.

“Wait, again,” I say, returning to my thoughts of our conversation at Megan’s, “not all the human/fairy encounters involve challenges.”

“Well,” says Melissa, “I can think of The Field of Boliauns where the protagonist gets tricked by a leprechaun, and The Fairy Ointment where the poor midwife loses not only her fairy sight but also the use of her right eye. Then there is Brewery of Eggshells with the stealing of a mother’s baby. These pose a different kind of challenge, but I say a challenge nonetheless.”

“True,” I concede, “but I am thinking of another story from The Welsh Fairy Book, only a few pages from your tale, The Green Isles of the Ocean. I forget where the story takes place, but it is in Wales, of course, and by the sea.

“The market in that town was frequented by the fairies. They would appear before a market vendor, never dicker over price, knowing the price without asking, and, in fact, never saying a word. No one really saw them coming or going. The merchants wondered where they came from, where they lived; at least those merchants with whom the fairies chose to deal. The fairies’ particular favorite was a fellow called Gruffydd, who did much business with them.

“Well, one day Gruffydd stood in the local churchyard. From there he could see islands out to sea he had never seen before. He realized these must be the Green Isles of the Ocean, spoken of by the bards as the home of the fairies. He went down to the shore intending to row across to the islands, but from there he could not see them. Returning to the churchyard, there they were.

“Being a clever man, he dug up a bit of the churchyard sod and by keeping his foot upon it he could navigate himself to the islands. When he arrived, the fairies greeted him warmly and gave him a tour of the islands’ wonders. They loaded him with presents, but made him surrender the sod from the churchyard. He continued to visit them through a secret tunnel they showed him and he remained great friends with the fairies for the rest of his life.”

Melissa sips from her glass, focusing her thoughts. “Not actually a story,” she concludes.

“No, it’s not. More of an anecdote, really, but, as I say, no challenge involved.”

“True, though I think it’s an exception; but your tale brings to my mind an entirely different thought.”

“And that thought is?” I prompt when she fails to go on.

“The fairy tales’ Christian/pagan struggle for the minds of its listeners. Take note: the merchant stood in a churchyard. Being on sacred Christian ground, the glamour that the fairies cast over their isles didn’t affect his eyes, and that piece of sod he surrendered to keep their friendship.

“That, if subtle, shows the power of Christianity over the charms of the fair folk.”

Thalia rustles in my lap to get more comfortable.

“Now that you bring up the Christian/pagan thing,” I say, “when you told us The Fairy Harp, in which the three fairies came to Morgan’s door, the image of the three angles coming to visit Abraham flashed through my thoughts. They too were testing. I wonder if that biblical story lent that image to this tale.”

“Likely,” Melissa looks into the bottom of her wine glass, “and yet, may not the shee be among the fallen angels, bent, as the lord’s angels, upon testing us?”

With that notion in mind, I will carry Thalia off to bed.

Your thoughts?




Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2019 The Prince Who Would Seek Immortality – Part One

Immortality Queen and Prince HJ Ford

Not Sure

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. . .

Thalia enters my study carrying Andrew Lang’s Crimson Fairy Book for her evening read.

“What’s this? Where’s Grimm?”

“Teddy wanted something different.” Thalia stuffs the bear between us.

She opens the book to its table of contents. With eyes closed, she waves her finger in the air.

At least the story-selection method has not changed.

Her delicate index finger lands on The Prince Who Would Seek Immortality.

A young prince, unhappy with the knowledge he must someday die, sets out to find the Land of Immortality. In his travels he comes across an eagle pulling on the upper branches of a huge tree. The eagle flies down and transforms into a king, who explains that he is condemned to uproot the tree and neither he nor any of his family can die until he does.

The king invites the prince to dine with him and the king’s beautiful daughter orders a meal to be laid out for them. During the feast the prince tells of his quest. The king suggests the prince marry his daughter and live with them. It will take the eagle six hundred years to uproot the tree, time enough for them all. The princess pleads with the prince to stay, but six hundred years is not an eternity.

At parting, the princess gives him a small box. Inside is her picture. When he looks at it he will be borne along over land or through the air. In this way he travels to many places.

One evening the box carries him to the top of a high mountain where a bald-headed laborer fills a basket with dirt and hauls it away. He explains to the prince he is condemned to carry away the mountain basket by basket, and he and his kin cannot die until he does.

Plucking a leaf from a tree, he transforms into a bald-headed king and invites the prince to dinner. This king’s daughter also wants to marry the prince, but her father’s task of eight hundred years is not enough.

At parting, she gives him a golden ring that will instantly take him wherever he wishes to go. He wishes himself to the end of the world.

He finds himself in a city. He does not understand the language spoken there, even though he speaks twenty-seven languages. Fortunately, he spots a man dressed in the style of his own country and learns the city is the capital of the Blue Kingdom, whose king has died and now ruled by his daughter.

He finds the young queen wrapped in a veil of shiny, silver mist. She knows his language, having learned it as a child. She too wishes to marry him, and shows him a room, the floor made up entirely of needles. Neither she nor her family can die until she wears out all the needles sewing; a thousand years.

This too is not enough. She gives him a rod that can become anything he wishes it to be.

Leaving the city, he comes to a broad river that cannot be crossed, being at the the end of the world and surrounding it. There he sees a city floating in the air. He wishes the rod to be a great ladder. However, a many-headed dragon keeps him from entering until the queen of the city allows it. She is the Queen of the Immortals and this is the Land of Immortality.

For a thousand years he lives with her happily until one night he dreams of his parents and wishes to visit them. His queen informs him they have been dead for eight hundred years, but gives him two flasks, one of silver and one of gold. The silver flask he fills with water from a small well in the room, which will bring death to anyone. From another well in the room he fills the gold flask, which will bring life to anyone.

Traveling home, he brings back to life the misty-veiled queen, the bald-headed king, and the eagle king. However, he finds his home covered by a sulfurous lake burning with a blue flame. There he is greeted by death, who has been looking for him for a thousand years. The prince’s three friends rush to his aid and hold back death as the prince slips on the gold ring.

But death is hard to hold and catches up with the prince when he has one foot in the Land of Immortality, but the other still in the mortal world. The Queen of the Immortals allows death to enter her city and bargains with him. She puts her foot under the prince’s foot and flings him up into the air and out of sight. If he comes down in the city, he is hers. If he falls outside the city walls, he is death’s.

The prince comes down at the edge of the city wall but the queen catches him. She then has death thrown out.

Thalia stares into the hearth. I can all but hear the wheels turning in her head.

“Not sure,” she says.

Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2019 The Prince Who Would Seek Immortality – Part Two

Immortality bald King HJ Ford

Some Fun

“I’m not sure,” says Duckworth, unknowingly agreeing with Thalia after I relate the tale to him.

We row together on the Isis on a glorious, spring day—or is it “the” glorious spring day given our British weather.

“Isn’t our hero a bit of a jerk?” asks Duckworth. “A mortal asking for immortality, simply because he wants it, is presumptuous.”

“Well, yes,” I agree, “but he does achieve it.”

“Only at the largess of the Queen of the Immortals. He does not really do anything to earn immortality.”

“He persists,” I defend.

“You say this story comes from one of Andrew Lang’s books.”

“Yes, but I think his wife translated it out of Ungarishcen Völksmärchen, a collection of Hungarian folktales.”

Duckworth parks his oars and we let ourselves drift on the current.

“Let me get the sequence straight,” he muses, “and ask all the inconvenient questions.”

I brace myself for the logical onslaught, against which fairy tales never do well.

Duckworth taps his finger on his chin. “Let’s take the first two kings, who have a similar pattern. They are condemned to perform near-impossible tasks. Both are transformed, although the second king’s transformation is not as profound as the first king’s, who changes from an eagle into a man, while the second changes from a bald-headed laborer into a bald-headed king.

“In either case, neither they, nor their kindred, can die until the task is completed. To whom among their kindred does this apply? Are second cousins twice removed included?”

“I doubt that,” I say. “The tale is only concerned with the kings’ daughters.”

“And do they age?” Duckworth goes on. “The tasks are to take hundreds of years. Will the kings and their daughters look hundreds of years old?”

“The tale does not say,” I try to answer. “The tales do not tell us what is not important for us to know; very economical.”

Duckworth rattles on. “I do see shades of King Sisyphus rolling his rock up a hill. That is his punishment for his misdeeds. Our two kings say they are condemned to perform their tasks. What was their crime? And what judge assigned the punishment?”

“I sense it was more of an onus put upon them rather than a punishment.”

Our boat drifts aground with a gentle lurch, but Duckworth does not notice. “And what sort of punishment is getting to live longer?”

I sigh.

But then,” Duckworth raises a finger, “the prince gets to the end of the world and the pattern shifts. No more transforming kings. The king is dead. The onerous task belongs to his daughter.

“Technically, the task could not have been assigned to the daughter until after the death of her father, since kindred cannot die while the task is in progress. And what did she do that she gets needled to death over a thousand years?”

I roll my eyes as Duckworth rolls on.

“Well, eventually, with the help of magical gifts—I have no trouble with magical gifts in fairy tales—given to him by the three women, whom he has abandoned—I have trouble with that—he gets to be an immortal.

“What does the cad do? He forgets about everyone else, including his parents, for eight hundred years. His parents’ home is now under a burning, sulfurous lake. Talk about neglect! For being the hero of our tale, he has some inexcusable personality flaws.”

Smiling, I say, “We’d better push off and get ourselves back upstream before we wander too far off course.”

“Oh, alright,” he returns the smile, “but you never really answered my questions.”

Duckworth has had his fun with me and he knows it.

Fairy Tale of the Month: May 2019 The Prince Who Would Seek Immortality – Part Three

Immortality dragons HJ Ford

I’m Sure

“I’m sure Duckworth meant to get the better of you. His objections spring from his legalistic mind.” Augustus slips his copy of The Crimson Fairy Book back onto the shelf. Augustus houses his fairy-tale collection here in his “testing” room, causing all his book spines to become smoke-stained until the titles can be barely read. But he knows where each of them resides in his bookcase.

I stuff my pipe with his newest blend, Lazarus’s Choice.

Augustus stands by the bookcase, contemplating. “Duckworth was astute, though, to notice the possible King Sisyphus connection.”

“Connection,” I echo. “I think that is a bit of a stretch to connect the two.”

“Maybe not,” he says. “Consider, King Sisyphus is being punished for his many crimes, but chief among them, as far as the gods are concerned, is his hubris to think himself cleverer than they. After offending Zeus one too many times, Zeus sends Hades to collect him with the chains of death. Sisyphus, pretending to be fascinated by the device of the chains, asks Hades to demonstrate them. Hades shows him how they work and is himself captured and shoved into Sisyphus’s closet.

“With Hades out of the way, no one can die. Eventually, Ares manages to release Hades, and Sisyphus is taken to the underworld, where he talks Persephone into letting him return to the upper world to set things right when Sisyphus’s wife does not properly bury him—at his instructions. He gets another reprieve from death.”

“Are you suggesting,” I say through the smoke I am making, “that the story is all about cheating death?”

“In short, yes.” Augustus settles back into his comfy chair. “Every character in the story is eluding death in one way or another with the exception of the hero’s parents, who are put under a lake of sulfur to keep them from being reanimated.

“The Sisyphean tasks have given the eagle/king six hundred extra years, the laborer/king eight hundred years, and the queen of the Blue Kingdom a thousand years. When the prince attempts to visit his parents, in his travels he brings back to life the two kings and the queen, who in turn aid him in avoiding his own death. Note too, he has the water of death with him but does not use it.

“The final insult to death comes when the Queen of the Immortals catches the prince just before he falls outside her walls and into the arms of death.”

“”I’m not sure,” I hear myself say, “about a direct connection to the Sisyphus story, although that is tempting, but I believe you are right about this being a cheating-death story.”

“Please also note,” Augustus pauses to relight his pipe, “that the story moves from treating the prince as the subject of the tale to being the object of the tale; the prize to be won at the end. He is hardly a character when the queen boots him up in the air like a soccer ball; rather comical, really. He could have been a coin toss.”

“Might the story be a parody of something more philosophical?” I suggest.

“Not out of the question,” Augustus nods his head. “Some of the images are oddly specific. A man chipping away at a mountain we’ve seen before. An eagle trying to uproot a tree I have not seen before, but it does not strike me as odd in fairy-tale terms. A magical golden ring we can probably buy used at any fairy antique shop.

“But I am stopped when we come to a small box with a picture in it that causes one to travel through the air. Then there is the room, the floor of which is made up of needles. The rod that transforms into anything may be unique as well. Might they be specifically pointing to something, the nature of which we are ignorant?”

“And where do we put the Blue Kingdom?” I add.

“Oh, at the end of the world, obviously.” Augustus smiles. “But, yes, why ‘blue?’ I have the strong feeling we are missing pieces of the puzzle.”

I’ll puff on that awhile. Lazarus’s Choice might be my new favorite.

Your thoughts?


Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2019 The Dancing Water, The Singing Apple, And The Speaking Bird – Part One

DancingWater batten oneJohn D. Batten

Another Book

I have always thought of the cobblestone street—along with the old-fashioned storefront window and its bold black letters spelling “Serious Books,” and the smaller lettering denoting “Melissa Serious, Proprietor,”—as being perfectly picturesque.

Thalia and I pay the store a visit as part of our Saturday ramble.

“Ah,” says Melissa as we enter the shop. “The very customer I am looking for. I have your next purchase.”

Of course she does.

“And what might that be?”

“What titles do you think of when I say the name of your old friend Joseph Jacobs?”

“Well, English Fairy Tales, More English Fairy Tales, Celtic Fairy Tales, and More Celtic Fairy Tales.”

She hands me the book she holds.

European Fairy Tales, by Joseph Jacobs.

“Really? I somehow missed this one.”

“Published shortly after his death, I believe, it is mostly variants of stories the Grimms collected, although there is one that really stands out for me. The Dancing Water, the Singing Apple, and the Speaking Bird.”

“Read!” pipes up Thalia.

Melissa glances around her store, otherwise empty of customers, and settles down on the reading sofa with Thalia at her side.

Once a king, with the peculiar habit of listening at people’s doors to hear what they thought of him, put his ear to the door of three sisters as they sat spinning. The first said, if she could marry the king’s butler, she would give the whole court a drink of water from a glass and have some left over.

The second said, if she could marry the king’s keeper of the wardrobe, she would clothe all the attendants from one piece of cloth and have some left over.

The youngest of the sisters said, if she could marry the king, she would bear him a son with the sun on his forehead and a daughter with the moon on hers.

The next day the king invites them to the castle to prove their claims, which the first two sisters miraculously do and get their husbands. The king marries the youngest under the condition she must bear the promised children or die.

The first two sisters become jealous of their younger sister. When the king goes off to war, and the promised children are born soon after, the sisters bribe the nurse to substitute two puppies. The nurse takes the children out to the wilderness to die and the king sends a message that his queen is to be placed in a treadmill to work until she dies.

Three fairies discover the babes and give them a deer to nurse and raise them, a purse that never empties of money, and a ring that will turn dark if one of them is in trouble.

When grown, the children are told by the fairies and the deer to move into the castle next to the king’s. The two sisters see the boy and girl with the sun and moon on their foreheads and know they are in trouble. They send the nurse to visit the girl to tell her that, if her brother truly loves her, he will get her the Dancing Water.

The lad goes in search of the Dancing Water and comes across a hermit who sends him for instruction to a brother hermit, who refers him to a third hermit. This hermit tell the lad where the castle is in which he can find the Dancing Water and how to enter the castle.

The castle is guarded by four giants, but the lad must not try to get past them if their eyes are closed, but rather when their eyes are open. Beyond them is a door he must not enter if the door is open, but wait until it is closed. Then there will be four lions, and again, their eyes must be open if he is to pass by.

When the lad returns with the Dancing Water (that jumps from bowl to bowl), the sisters send the nurse again to tell the girl of the Singing Apple. The quest for the Singing Apple is identical to that of the Dancing Water. The nurse then tells the girl that all she needs now is the Speaking Bird.

The hermits warn the lad not to talk to the bird, but take one of its feathers, dip it in a nearby jar of water and anoint the statues in the garden. Unfortunately, the bird tells the lad the treadmill will soon claim his mother’s life. To this he exclaims in surprise to the bird and he turns into a stone statue.

His sister sees the ring, given to them by the fairies, turn dark. She disguises herself as a page and sets out to find her brother. She, too, encounters the hermits, who instruct her. She succeeds in reclaiming her brother and anointing the other statues, who return to their human form of princes and barons. Even the lions and giants are released, the hermits return to being the three fairies, and the magic castle dissolves.

The king finally returns from his war to see the boy and girl and begins to suspect they are his children. The bird invites the king to visit them and on a return visit to the king’s castle, the bird tells the king the full story.

The nurse is thrown out the window to her death and the sisters dropped into boiling oil. The king begs forgiveness from his wife and brings her back to the castle. The bird flies off and all live happily ever after.

“Wow,” says Thalia.

“I’ll buy it,” I say.

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2019 The Dancing Water, The Singing Apple, And The Speaking Bird – Part Two

dancing-water-two.png John d. Batten

Ramble On

“And where does your Saturday ramble take you today?” Melissa asks, as she rings up my book.

“I am afraid it is still a toss-up; either Battersea Park’s Children’s Zoo or St. Jame’s Park to see the feeding of the pelicans.”

“Oh, bother,” sighs Melissa. You are my only customers all morning and now it’s past noon. If you go to St. Jame’s, I’ll close up shop and go with you.”

“Deal!” says Thalia.

“I will be delighted,” I say.

We head for the eastern end of the lake near Downing Street. Pelicans are gathering like groupies in anticipation of the attendant and his fish.

“What do you make of the eavesdropping king?” Melissa smiles at me.

“I hope that is not one of his better qualities.” I return her smile. “The king does serve as the inciting event, then disappears from the story until he reappears for the conclusion. The body of the story occurs between his appearances.”

Melissa nods in agreement then frowns. “Do the three spinning sisters bring to your mind the Fates?”

“Not for very long. Their destinies move quickly out of their own hands. However, the first two sisters do have the abilities to stretch water and cloth, and the younger to predict a somewhat miraculous birth.”

“Yes, the children,” says Melissa. “The motif of the king going off to war before his wife gives birth and the substitution of the puppies. I have come across it a number of times, as odd as it is. It’s the sun and moon stigmata that I don’t recall seeing before.”

Somewhere in my memory I think I have.

Thalia giggles as the attendant flings fish at the pelicans, which scramble to capture and gobble them down in their bag-like beaks.

“And fairies!” she chimes in. I didn’t think she was listening to us.

“True,” says Melissa, “it is something of a rarity to have fairies in a fairy tale.”

“Their role,” I analyze, “is as magical helpers, be they in fairy form or as hermits.”

“Then we have the quests for the Dancing Water, Singing Apple, and Speaking Bird, part of the repetitive  three,” Melissa observes.

“The three sisters, three fairies, three hermits, three gifts, and their quests,” I enumerate.

“Dancing, singing, and speaking are all communitive,” Melissa reflects, “giving the three gifts a theme of their own.”

When the fish-feeding ends, we wander along the lake toward Buckingham Palace. To Thalia’s delight, one of the pelicans decides to join us, pacing beside me, trying to nibble the end of my umbrella that I carry “just in case.”

“The speaking bird has a special role,” I say.

“Yes,” Melissa fills in, “at first it is a threat. It tricks the lad into speaking, turning him into a statue, just what the two sisters hoped for.”

“But then,” I pick up the thought, “when the girl succeeds in breaking the spell—a spell we didn’t know existed until she broke it—the bird becomes a magical helper.”

“And,” Melissa concludes, “after it tells the king the whole story, it flies away.”

I poke at the pelican to ward it off, but that only encourages him to attack the umbrella even more, eliciting more giggles from Thalia.

Melissa frowns again. “Is our disassembling the tale, helping us to understand it?”

“A little,” I say, “although, disassembling doesn’t sound constructive.”

“Perhaps,” Melissa suggests with a twinkle in her eye, “a visit with Mr. Joseph Jacobs may be in order.”

Ah, today is turning into quite a ramble.

Fairy Tale of the Month: April 2019 The Dancing Water, The Singing Apple, And The Speaking Bird – Part Three

Dancing Water John D Batten three John D. Batten

More Books

When our pelican became distracted by a brighter-colored umbrella, we quicken our pace and got away. Now we make for the blind alley at the end of which—for us—stands the gate to Miss Cox’s garden.

To our surprise, Mr. Jacobs is already sitting on the bench sampling the scones that Miss Cox has so kindly provided for our afternoon tea.

“We meet again!” he calls out with a smile. Melissa pours some tea for us, while Thalia grabs two scones, slathering one with clotted cream and jam, then dashing off to the pond to feed the other scone to the swans.

“I,” Melissa says, getting to the point after we settle down with our cups of tea, “have questions about the Dancing Water, the Singing Apple, and the Speaking Bird.”

“I think it is the longest title in the book,” Joseph chuckles. “I drew my version from Thomas Crane’s translation of an Italian work, originally a Sicilian fairy tale.

“However, like most fairy tales, it is well-traveled. The earliest written version is by Straparola around 1550. His work records a number of fairy tales for the first time. Our tale he called Ancilotto, King of Provino.

“The tale also appears in the Arabian Nights, the 756th night to be exact, and in the Brothers Grimm.”

“In Grimm?” I exclaim, “Where?”

“They called it The Three Little Birds. The story had changed by the time the Grimms found it. The three sisters are herding cows. The queen’s three children are born one at a time; two boys and a girl. Each time the evil sisters replace it with a dog or a cat. The eldest boy has a star on his forehead.”

That’s where I remember the forehead stigmata from. I read that story eons ago and it’s one of the few I have not read to Thalia.

I look down toward the pond. Thalia and the swans are getting along famously.

“In the Grimm version,” Joseph continues, “the Dancing Water, Singing Apple, and Speaking Bird have morphed. The Singing Apple is gone, the Dancing Water no longer dances and is used to restore their mother to health. The bird is in a cage, but nonetheless sings the story of the children to the king.

“Gone too are the giants, lions, and statues, but a magic wand and a black dog that turns into a prince for the girl to marry, are added; a bit of a muddle in my opinion.”

“I am curious about the sun and moon on the children’s foreheads,” Melissa says, taking a sip of tea.

“Ah, well. . .” Joseph shifts uncomfortably. “That’s my doing.”

Melissa glances at him sharply.

“Let me say,” he defends himself, “we editors are storytellers too. In Crane’s translation, which I followed closely except for this detail, the queen has triplets, two boys with apples in their hands, and a girl with a star on her forehead.

“In my view, the apples in hand served no purpose in the rest of the story, and one brother did nothing but be the second one to get turned into a statue. I dropped the useless brother, and drew from the research I had done for my Indian Fairy Tales, that is fairy tales from India, where the sun and moon markings are a known story element.”

“I thought it a little foreign.” Melissa’s curiosity is satisfied.

Indian Fairy Tales? Did I miss that one too?

I see Melissa writing a note to herself. I know what my next purchase will be.

Your thoughts.


Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2019 The Singing Springing Lark – Part One

Singing Springing Arthur_Rackham_The_Lady_and_the_Lion Arthur Rackham

Beast and Bird

There are those who live for the weekend. There are those who live for their vacations. There are those who live for the next football game. They live for that short time when they feel particularly alive.

I live for hearing Thalia padding down the hall, dragging her Teddy behind her, a dog-eared copy of Grimm clutched in her other hand. She shoulders the study door open a little wider, making her determined passage to the comfy chair. Thalia flings Teddy into my lap, grabs my belt to pull herself up, and settles between me and the padded arm of the chair.

She opens her book in my lap and goes through the ceremony of choosing a story, with much finger-waving in the air before randomly stabbing the table of contents. She judges if that is the story to be told tonight or not. We are running out of unread tales.

“Ah,” I say, “The Singing Springing Lark.

A merchant, about to go on a long trip, asks his daughters what they want him to bring back for them. His youngest wants a singing springing lark. On the return trip, the merchant carries pearls and diamonds for his elder daughters and spots a lark near a mysterious castle.

“Hey, this is Beauty and the Beast!” Thalia pouts a little.

Before the merchant catches the bird, a lion jumps out intent on eating the merchant.

“There’s the beast.”

When the merchant pleads for his life, the lion agrees but only if the merchant will surrender what first greets him on his return. The lion even gives the merchant the bird. The merchant fears the first to greet him will be his youngest daughter, but he has no choice.

“That’s a little different.” Thalia’s brow knits.

As fate will have it, it is the youngest who greets him first. When she finds out what has happened, she insists her father keep his promise, and declares she will tame the lion and return.

Taming turns out not to be necessary. A friendly pack of lions escorts her to the castle, and that evening turns into a prince and his men. The wedding takes place immediately.

“Oh!” says Thalia.

From then on, they sleep by day and stay up all night. One day her husband tells her that her eldest sister is to be married, and asks if she would like to attend the wedding. She does and is accompanied by some of her husband’s lions.

“Cool.” Thalia grins.

When the second sister is to be married, the youngest wants her lion/husband and their child to come as well. He says he cannot lest the light of a wedding candle fall on him and turn him into a dove for seven years. She promises to protect him and has a hall built that will admit no light.

It does not work. When the marriage procession passes in front of the hall, a hairline crack in the green wood of the door allows in one ray. When the youngest opens the hall, a dove flies off leaving a trail of blood and feathers every seven steps that she must follow for seven years.

“Ohhh!” Thalia exclaims in sympathy.

Shortly before the seven years are up, she loses the trail and goes to the sun and moon for help. They do not know where the dove has gone, but give her a small casket and an egg to be use in great duress. She is helped by the four winds, who tell her the dove has returned to his lion form and battles a dragon, who is an enchanted princess. By going to the Red Sea, cutting the eleventh reed, and striking the dragon with it, she will cause the lion to defeat the dragon, breaking the spell on both creatures.

Also by the Red Sea is a griffin to carry them back home. The four winds give the youngest a nut, which she must cast into the sea on their passage home, and which will immediately sprout into a nut tree, growing a branch on which the griffin can rest.

All this she does, but the princess, when no longer under enchantment, grabs the prince and flies off on the griffin.

“Wow,” wonders Thalia.

After much wandering, the youngest rediscovers her husband just before he and the princess are to be wed. Opening the casket from the sun reveals a golden dress, which she uses to trade with the princess for an evening with her groom. However, the princess drugs her fiancé into sleep.

The next day the youngest cracks open the egg from the moon, and out comes a golden hen and twelve golden chicks. These, too, the princess want, but her trick of the night before is thwarted by a faithful servant.

Hearing his true bride’s voice, the spell is truly broken, and the prince and the youngest fly off on the griffin, allowing it to rest on the branch of the nut tree grown from the nut cast into the sea. Returning home, they are reunited with their son, grown tall and handsome, and they live happily thereafter.

“Yeah!” Thalia is pleased.

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2019 The Singing Springing Lark – Part Two

Singing springing-johnb-gruelle John B. Gruelle

A Reflection

Time to reflect, I think to myself as Thalia and Teddy disappear through the study door. And nothing reflects better than the Thinking Pool in the Dark Forest.

I know better than to venture into the Dark Forest at night, but—I assure myself—the pool is barely inside the forest’s edge and there is a full moon in the sky. With the comfort of a heavy coat and my pipe against the cold of the night, I amble across the threshold of the French doors, traverse the frozen lawn, and enter into the forest.

I sit by the pool, edged with stones, on a small stone stool (looking for all the world like a stone mushroom). Taking a deep draft from my pipe, I blow the smoke across the still water. It drifts and rolls a little above the surface, as an image forms on its glassy face. It is the head of a lion appearing at the far end of the pool, oddly, upside down.

I glance up. Oh no! I see the reflection is of a real lion, with cold, unblinking eyes, standing a short leap from me.

“You invoked me.” The lion settles on his haunches.

Did I? Not my best idea.

“I came to contemplate The Singing, Springing Lark,” I say.

“Then that is why I am here.”

“You are who?”

“I am the enchanted prince. I am the lost husband. You see me as a lion, but I am a fox, a flounder, a bird, even,” he dips a claw into the pool, “a tree.”

As the ripple he creates passes over the surface, I see a young woman embraced by a young man who is half human and half tree.

The Old Woman in the Forest.” I recognize the image. “In that tale you and all your men are trees, but you can also be a dove for a few hours every day. In the lark story you and all your men are lions by day, and you become a dove for seven years, not the same thing, but strangely similar.”

The lion touches the water again. A series of images tumbles before me, one on top of the other, but I identify them. “A Sprig of Rosemary; East of the Sun, West of the Moon; The Black Bull of Norroway, The Tale of the Hoodie. All these tales,” I say, “have women looking for their lost husbands.”

The lion touches the water once more. In succession I see a woman holding a candle over a handsome youth, another woman opening a chest with a small key, yet another woman by a door from which flies a dove with a feather and drop of blood suspended in the air.

The lion glares at me with those cold eyes, expecting me to say more. I’d better think quickly before he becomes impatient with this dull human.

“Each woman,” I say slowly, “each wife, has made a mistake, broken a promise, failed a task.”

The lion nods and waits.

“Every one of them goes on a quest to reclaim her husband. All receive supernatural aid, advice, and gifts.”

The lion nods again and waits.

“The journeys are long,” I continue. “The magical help is barely enough. Each, in the end, must in some way awaken her husband to the truth, to the true nature of their experience.”

“You ignore one element,” the lion rumbles.

“And that is?” I hear a tremble in my voice. Have I failed a test?

“Theirs are all acts of atonement,” he growls. Then, shimmering, he transforms into a dove, flies off into the forest darkness leaving behind a feather slowly drifting toward the ground.

In my imagination, I am chasing after that dove, following the trail of blood and feathers. My body—wisely—is running for all its worth back to the safety of the study.

Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2019 The Singing Springing Lark – Part Three

Singing springing_(Edwardes,_Bell) Robert Anning Bell

More Reflection

“Atonement?” I say aloud, sitting on the window seat, catching my breath. I suppose, I think to myself, but I don’t feel convinced.

All the Beauty and the Beast variants arise, I will guess, from Apuleius’s Cupid and Psyche, in which Cupid’s forbids Psyche to look upon him. She, instead, follows the advice of her sisters, who suggest he is a dangerous beast. She approaches their bed with a lamp in one hand and a dagger in the other, breaking a trust between them.

In the lark story, the youngest acts in good faith, building a hall in which to hide the prince for candlelight, but is foiled by the slightest defect in a door made of green wood; foiled by fate might be more to the point.

The circumstances in the two stories are different, yet I am struck again by an odd parallel not unlike that between the lark story and The Old Woman in the Forest. In this case Cupid is awoken when hot oil from Psyche’s lamp falls upon him, wounding him, and he flies away. In the lark story, a ray of light from a wedding candle falls upon the prince, transforming him into a dove that flies off leaving a trail of blood.

If these events were more similar, I could safely assume there was a bit of borrowing going on. Instead, they are different enough that I wonder if they didn’t grow out of the same impulse rather than the same origin.

By way of contrast, my brain considers The Sprig of Rosemary. Against all warnings, the heroine feels compelled to open the forbidden box in which lies a snakeskin. At the sight of the skin, all of the underground world vanishes, including the memory of it and of her husband, recovered only by the scent of rosemary.

This version of the lost-husband story has no lamp or candle as a symbol despite taking place in an underground castle. No dove appears in the story. The symbolic items—the rosemary, the snakeskin—are dissimilar to the other two lost-husband stories.

What the Psyche story and the rosemary story have in common is that the heroines consciously act contrary to their husbands’ wishes. In the lark tale, the youngest acts with his cooperation. Although all three stories are clearly of the lost-husband motif, additional similarities across all of them really do not exist.

How can the lion insist these are stories of atonement?

However, I am not about to go back and ask him.

Still sitting on the window seat, realizing my heart has stopped pounding, I see Wilhelm standing by the fireplace gazing into the flames. I haven’t seen Wilhelm in my study for quite some time and I marvel at his presence.

He glances halfway in my direction. He must know I am watching him. He takes a poker from the rack and scrawls in the ashes on the hearth. He returns the poker to the rack, straightens up, and looks toward me as he fades from sight.

I discover in the ashes he has drawn a series of hearts.

“Matters of the heart, of course,” I say. The lion, for all his authority, has missed the element that binds these three tales and all the others of its ilk together. It is the love these women hold for their husbands that sustains them through their quests.

Certainly it is not the theme of atonement that has made these stories among the most popular of the fairy tales, but rather it’s the story of true, pure love that attracts us.

Your thoughts.


Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2019 The Enchanted Deer – Part One

Enchanted Deer FordH J Ford

Lonely Supper

I had a lonely supper eaten in silence, built a fire in the hearth in a vain attempt to cheer myself, and now, with a glass of whiskey, watch an overcast February day fade away through my bay windows. Thalia and her mother are off visiting relatives in Glasgow.

My gloom is interrupted by Thalia’s black-haired fairy. She flutters close to my nose, giving me a most demanding frown. Fairies are a little like cats in nature. If they are unhappy about a thing, it’s your fault.

“What? Have I done something wrong?”

She buzzes over to my bookcase, hovering in front of a lilac-colored binding.

“Ah, Andrew Lang’s Lilac Fairy Book. I see.”

I take it down and shuffle to my comfy chair. I have come to suspect the fairy regularly listens to the stories I read to Thalia, perhaps hiding in Thalia’s pocket or in a dark corner of the study. But now, with Thalia gone, the fairy has to reveal herself and demand a story. She would have you know that fairy tales are not written about fairies, rather they are written for fairies.

I open the book to its table of contents. She alights on the page a moment, putting her foot on The Enchanted Deer, then flutters up to settle on my shoulder.

A young man, Ian, trades his mother’s cart horse for a gun, a dog, and a falcon. His widowed mother, her fisherman-husband having drowned at sea, beats her son for the trade. He leaves home to become a hunter.

A farmer asks Ian to kill a deer that has been raiding his fields, but when the youth aims his gun at the deer it turns into a beautiful woman. He follows her, in her deer form, to a cottage thatched with heather. The deer lies down on the roof of heather, calling out, “Go in, fisher’s son, and eat and drink while you may.”

This he does until the twenty-four thieves who live there come home and kill him.

Oh, I think to myself, should that not be the end of the story?

Of course not. Such things are of no inconvenience to the fairy tale.

In the morning the deer comes and shakes her earwax onto the body and the youth is restored.

See, I told you.

The process repeats itself, Ian being killed over and over again. Additionally, the captain of the thieves orders the deaths of his men who fail to kill the youth. This numbers game continues until there are no more thieves.

Next, the deer conducts the youth to a witch’s cottage to stay, and tells him to meet her in the nearby church the next midday. The witch implants a “spike of hurt” into the doorway of the church, which brushes against Ian when he enters, causing him to fall into a deep sleep. The witch’s dark son watches over him.

When Ian awakes, the dark son tells him of the visit of a princess and how she tried to wake him, but does not tell him of the witch’s subterfuge. Three times this happens. The dark son tells the youth that on the third night she declared she will never see him again, but does not tell Ian that she has written  her name, “The daughter of the king of the town under the waves,” on his side, nor of the beautifully-wrought box she put in his pocket.

Ian sets off to find her and comes across an old woman who knows who he is and of his quest. She sends him off to her sister, giving him magical shoes to make the distant journey. This happens the mandatory three times, the third sister having a son who is the keeper of the birds.

The keeper of the birds has the youth, still keeping his gun, climb into a sack made of cowhide, but the dog and falcon are left behind. The sack is carried off by an eagle who deposits him on an island where there is nothing to eat.

At this point Ian finds the box, while searching his pockets for food. Three small birds fly out of the opened box to grant him wishes. He wishes to be in the kingdom under the waves. Once there, he takes employment with a weaver. The weaver tells him of a horse race, the winner of which can claim the princess.

With the aid of the three birds in the box, he has the fastest horse, fine clothing, and glass shoes. He wins the race, but does not claim the bride. The race is run three times and he wins all, but still does not claim the princess.

The king then searches for the victor of the races. During the search they find Ian, but as he is dirty and ragged they do not recognize him, and it is decided he is worthy of death. While he is standing on the gallows, the princess spots the words she wrote on his side and claims him as her true husband.

The fairy, now contented, flitters off, her happy laughter sounding like softly-shattering glass.

I, in my discontent, re-read the story.

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2019 The Enchanted Deer – Part Two

Enchanted Deer Ford2H J Ford

Surreptitious Listener

Another sly listener to the tales is Johannes. He often lingers in the study while I read to Thalia. Tonight, as I read to the fairy, he came in, curled up on the seat beneath the bay window, staring through the glass into the darkness.

“Johannes,” I call to him. “What do you think of Andrew Lang’s telling of this tale? I sense some interference on his part; the tale doesn’t quite hold together for me. Does he concede to some social norms of his day that cloud the tale?”

“Nora’s telling of the tale,” he replies.


“Lenora Blanche Lang, his wife, translated and edited the tales. The Color Books were her creation.”

“And how,” I asked, “do you know that?”

“I sat in Nora’s lap as she worked on them.”

“You were the Lang’s cat?” My surprise is sincere.

Johannes bristles. “I belong to no one. Nora was my lady, as Thalia is now my lady.”

Oops. I forgot. Johannes is a sith cat. “Accept my humble apology, but did Nora Lang change this tale to suit her audience?”

“Not much.” Johannes’s tail fur settles down. “Note her source at the end of the story.”

Sure enough, Popular Tales of the West Highlands.

“I have that.” It is one of the books Melissa talked me into purchasing. I never before broke its spine. It took me awhile to find the tale, now named The Widow’s son. 

I sit and read.

“Good grief,” I state when I finish.

Johannes gives me his best Cheshire grin.

The book’s author, J. F. Campbell, collected the story orally from two Scotsmen, Donald MacCraw and John MacPhie, their versions deviating substantially.

Campbell tries to make a coherent story out of the two versions without much success. Nora Lang tried to make some sense out of Campbell’s version, but, I feel, failed as well.

In MacCraw’s version, when the princess visits Ian in the church, on the first day, she is dressed in white, coming in a chariot drawn by four white horses. On the second day the color scheme is grey, and on the third, black. Why did Campbell and Lang both omit that harmless detail?

As Campbell wrote his version, when it came to the races for the princess’s hand in marriage, the first contest was a horse race, the second a dog race, and the third a falcon race. Ian, however, does not enter the original dog or falcon into the races, but rather ones given to him by the three birds in the box, which Campbell describes as a snuffbox.

MacCraw’s version skips the three old sisters, and goes directly to an old man herding a cow. Ian buys the cow, puts himself into the cow hide and has himself thrown into the sea. Eagles pick him up and carry him to their nest where Ian kills their fledglings, after which they carry him off to the kingdom under the sea.

“Why would they do that?” I ask Johannes. His Cheshire grin widens.

The discrepancies among the versions accorded to Nora Lang, John MacPhie, and Donald MacCraw’s go even further; MacCraw said Ian got the box, not from the princess, but from his grandfather, and the “he” within the box granted the wishes. After Ian is recognized by the princess, with the aid of the box, Ian creates a castle for them. A rival steals the snuffbox and carries the princess and the castle off to the realm of the rats.

Ian is helped by an old man, who gives him a magical boat and a cat. The cat, who I can’t help but suspect is Johannes, catches a rat, and on pain of death, convinces it to steal back the snuff box. Order is restored, and the proper marriage between Ian and the princess takes place.

What goes to my heart and stirs it with a sense of longing, is Campbell’s description of his conversation with MacCraw on a long walk in North Uist. MacCraw told him, during their ramble, that he heard the story from an old woman, and how he and other “bairns” would walk miles to her cabin, even in the snow, with offerings of tobacco, procured from elders, to bribe her to tell them the tales.

MacCraw confessed to having forgotten much of the story, particularly the “measured prose phrases” that garnished the tale.

What came to MacCraw’s ears, but not from his mouth, that we shall never hear?

Fairy Tale of the Month: February 2019 The Enchanted Deer – Part Three

Enchanted Deer Ford3H J Ford

Unclaimed Bride

“Johannes,” I say, “there is much about this story that is curious. For one, there is the ‘mirror reflection’ of Ian and his mother, the witch and her dark son, and the third sister and her son, the keeper of the birds—so very fatherless. The actual fathers of these sons do not appear in the story. I wonder if a father has ever been the hero of a fairy tale.

“Then there is our hero, Ian, uniformly addressed as the fisher’s son. In fact, in Campbell’s version, one of the old women calls him son of the great fisher of Ireland. Would that not be the Fisher King of the Arthurian tales? Would that not put a different cast to the story?

“Also, there is the peculiar request of Ian to the three birds. When he needs to take part in the horse race, he asks, of course, for the fastest horse, fine clothing, and then for glass shoes. Glass shoes have no practicality in a horse race. Is this an allusion to Cinderella?

“Let us not even try to consider the healing properties of deer earwax.

“What bothered me the most, while reading this tale, is the motif I have encountered before, but here it is again. In this motif, the hero arises to defend, or vie for, the princess. It is always a princess in contention. The encounter or conflict will happen three times. At the start of each event, the hero prepares himself with the help of magic. At the end of each event the hero retires and assumes a humble position, not taking advantage of his victory.

“He has every right,” I blather on, “to claim the princess, and that is his goal, but he, inexplicable, does not claim her. Another event needs to occur before he will come forward, be drawn out, or be discovered.

“Why,” I ask, “is the hero working against himself?”

“Because,” answers Johannes smugly, “He must.”

“Why?” I plead.

“Ah, that is harder to answer,” Johannes admits. “The journey in the story is travail. The resolution cannot be easy and quick.  But more importantly, the hero in the story is not just a character, the hero is the listener. The tale is guiding the listener to a conclusion.”

“And what is that conclusion?” I ask.

“The conclusion is a bit ephemeral.” Johannes scratched his ear with a hind leg. “There is no sound logic in the answer; rather the answer is an intuitive one.

“Before the hero defends or vies for the princess, there is a history. The hero, at least, has fallen in love with the princess. Often in this motif, as with this tale, they have touched each other before.

“To win a race, kill a seven-headed dragon, or whatever, and then claim the princess, would be a cheap trick, a convenience. Our hero cannot purchase his bride. In this motif, she must claim him, or he must come forward and reveal himself, to save her from a further deception by a dishonest rival.

“The listener, as hero, be they male or female, want the full satisfaction of true love, and not the result of a good bargain. While a worthy fairy tale ends well, the path to that good end must never feel certain.”

“The listener as hero?” I muse. “That the listener identifies themselves with the tale is the usual course.”

“To a degree,” corrects Johannes. “Some motifs invite you to be an observer. Other motifs demand you participate. How and when that happens is the ephemeral part. If we knew how a fairy tale would affect us—all of literature for that matter—we would stop reading and listening. We, who are intelligent, crave the unexpected and the inexplicable.”

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2019 The Iron Stove – Part One

iron stove fordH. J. Ford

Museum Ramble

“I want the fish and chips, but not sure about the peas,” Thalia decides, holding the children’s menu of the Great Court Restaurant in her hands.

The restaurant sits atop the old Reading Room here at the British Museum and looks out over the courtyard. Above us, radiating upward and outward—and rather amazingly—is a glass awning. We almost feel as if we are at an outdoor café with a glass bubble fending off the January weather.

Melissa, Thalia, and I spent the morning rambling through a small section of the Museum’s Greek antiquities collection. We covered as much of it as we could until our eyes glazed over. Melissa became transfixed before a terracotta bust of Cupid and Psyche embracing. I pried her away with the promise of lunch.

“Wild mushroom-pearl barley risotto?” Melissa muses. I am going for the braised duck leg. It comes with a caramelized quince.

Melissa glances up from her menu. “I’m working on an article concerning Cupid and Psyche.”

“I see, hence your enchantment with the bust. What happened to your magical guidebook for tourists?”

“In progress, but I need a diversion now and again.”

“And the premise of your article?”

“That Lucius Apuleius’s story of Cupid and Psyche has had an inexplicable influence on fairy tales.”

“Such as Beauty and the Beast,” I interject.

“That is the boring example everyone uses. For my article I am using Grimms’ The Iron Stove.

“I have read that,” I say, “but not for some time. Remind me.”

Thalia’s ears prick up as Melissa launches into the tale.

A prince, through a witch’s curse, is trapped inside an iron stove sitting in a forest. A princess, lost in the forest for many days, comes across the stove, who/which offers to help her if she will marry him/it. Not pleased with the idea of marrying a stove, but desperate to escape the forest, she agrees.

The stove provides an escort out of the forest and she is to return with a knife to scrape a hole in the stove.

“What’s an escort?” Thalia frowns.

“A sort of guide.” Melissa says.

“How much staff does an iron stove sitting in the middle of a forest have?” I wonder aloud.

“The story doesn’t say,” Melissa grins.

Not wanting a marriage to the stove, the princess and her father conspire to send the miller’s daughter in her place. The miller’s daughter is not able to bore a hole in the iron stove and by dawn the stove discovers she is not the princess. Next, the princess and the king send the swineherd’s daughter with the same result. Only, this time, the stove threatens to not let one stone stand atop another in the kingdom if the princess does not come.

The princess can easily bore a hole in the iron stove and out comes a handsome prince. He wants to carry her off to his kingdom, but she asks to see her father one more time. This is granted, but she cannot speak more than three words to him. Of course she does speak more than three words, and the prince and the iron stove are carried off over glass mountains, sharp swords, and a great lake.

Searching for her lost prince, the princess comes across a cottage inhabited by toads, who host her for the evening. In the morning, the head toad gives her the needed magical devices: three needles to climb the glass mountains, a plow wheel to run over the swords, and three nuts containing fabulous dresses. With these, she travels until she comes to a great castle.

“Wait,” says Thalia. “How did she get across the lake.”

“She sailed.”

“In what?”

“The story doesn’t say.”

Thalia mugs a sad face.

The prince is there and about to marry a false bride. The princess bribes the false bride with the three dresses in order to be allowed to sleep in the prince’s room for three nights. On the first two nights the false bride drugs the prince’s wine, but by the third night the prince is on to the scheme and is able to claim his true bride.

They escape by taking the false bride’s three dresses so that she cannot get up.

“Take her dresses so she can’t get up?” My turn to frown.

“That’s how the story explains it,” Melissa replies.

They return to the toad cottage, which is now a castle filled with princes and princesses; the marriage takes place; and the bride’s father is brought to live with them.

Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2019 The Iron Stove – Part Two

cupid and psyche one Cupid and Psyche, Terracotta, British Museum

Psyche’s Marriage

Our meals arrive, along with Thalia’s babyccino, and silence descends upon our repast for a bit.

“What does the princess have to do with Psyche?” Thalia asks, raising her head from her fish and chips.

Melissa turns her attention from her risotto to her glass of Monastrell, answering, “In a couple of ways.”

After a sip, she says, “In the Cupid and Psyche story, her sisters, when Cupid permits them to visit, ill-advise her to discover the true nature of her mysterious husband. When she does, he must flee. In The Iron Stove, the princess is granted a visit to her family, but cannot speak more than three words. When she does speak more, her husband disappears. In both cases, the heroine must search for her lost husband because of family interference.

“Other elements from Lucius Apuleius’s story are mirrored in our tale. Psyche is aided by some of the gods and goddess, after Psyche offended the goddess Venus, Cupid’s mother. In The Iron Stove, the princess is aided by the family of toads, who supply her with magical devices.

“Both Psyche and the princess go through travail and tests before they can reclaim their husbands.”

I see Thalia begin to fidget and peer up at the glass awning. Melissa’s eyes slide toward me.

“Both stories culminate in a marriage ceremony. I must ask myself, is Cupid and Psyche’s marriage the origin of the fairy-tale obsession with marriage?”

I see Thalia wander from her seat toward the railing overlooking the courtyard. My knee jerks.

“Don’t fall over.”

“I won’t,” she calls back.

We doting grandfathers have so little authority.

“If I am right,” Melissa goes on, oblivious to our charge about to fall into oblivion, “the familiar visits, disappearing husbands, divine or magical helpers, and the culminating marriage are not the only motifs taken from Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, in which the Cupid and Psyche story appears.

“The sisters of this tale, working against the heroine, appear in many fairy tales. The princess exposed, abandoned, sacrificed to a dragon—usually on a rocky crag—appears here. Being attended to and entertained by unseen servants, as well as the nightly visits by an unseen husband, come from this story. The heroine falling into a death-like sleep and being awakened by her lover is here. So are the tasks, imposed by Venus in this tale and often the stepmother in the fairy tales, which the heroine must overcome. Especially the one about Venus throwing before Psyche a mass of mixed wheat, barley, poppyseed, chickpeas, lentils, and beans, demanding that she sort them into separate heaps before morning .It is the ants that take pity on her and do the sorting. In the fairy tales, if there are three tasks, the sorting of the seeds is one of them.”

To my relief, Thalia wanders back to finish her babyccino.

As my blood pressure drops, I ask Melissa, “Marriage, you were saying something about marriage.”

Melissa smiles at me, glancing at Thalia sipping her drink. “I am trying to make the argument that a surprising number of fairy-tale motifs, including the marriage-at-the-end come from the Cupid and Psyche story.

“But here is the real surprise. Metamorphoses was written in the second century, then fell out of popularity. By the end of the Dark Ages there appears to be only one copy left.

“Along comes the Renaissance with its intellectuals keen on rediscovering ancient works, Metamorphoses among them. And, guess what, along with the Renaissance comes the printing press. Now there are many, many copies of Metamorphoses.

“Are you suggesting,” I say, “that after the Cupid and Psyche story is being read by the literate that it trickles down to the illiterate storytellers to populate their imagination?”


Fairy Tale of the Month: January 2019 The Iron Stove – Part Three

iron stove tenniel white rabbit Sir  John Tenniel

Time Enough

After lunch and some recovery of our senses, we decide to test our senses’ limits again with a visit to the medieval collection in Room 40. While Thalia jumps from display to display, Melissa and I linger to admire the room’s most notable possession, the Royal Gold Cup.

“Is The Iron Stove,” I ask, my mind returning to our discussion, “simply another version of the Cupid and Psyche tale?”

“Certainly not. Fairy tales are a patchwork of many motifs, and not all of them are of Greek origin. But these motifs of Greek origin and their articles, such as the golden apples of so many tales, are never given a hint of attribution. I am not aware of a single Greek god or goddess appearing in a fairy tale for all that has been borrowed from their mythology. I might conjecture the old storytellers very well knew they stole from the Greeks and were hiding the crime.”

Through a doorway I spot a room full of clocks and watches. Melissa and Thalia follow me as though I were the White Rabbit late for a date. The elaborate, exposed mechanism of a device labeled the Cassiobury Park turret clock (1610), which approaches Rube Goldberg status, holds my visual attention as my thoughts again return to Melissa’s topic.

“What are the non-Cupid and Psyche motifs in The Iron Stove?”

“The toad family in the cottage, for one. I don’t know of any toads in Greek mythology. There are a few people turned into frogs among the Greeks, but no toads.”

“Frogs, toads, aren’t they the same?” I ask, still studying the wheels, levers, and cables of the clock.

“Oh, what a city-boy you are! No, toads, while in the frog family, are terrestrial creatures. Frogs live in the water. And the fairy tales treat them that way. Frogs are associated with wells and are loners by the way, while toads are on land, coming in groups, living in cottages, dwelling underground, or coming out of people’s mouths.”

I wander over to a wall display of pocket watches. I want them all. “Other non-Greek motifs?” I ask. I really want the gold pendulum watch for my own.

“The origin of the three dresses in the nuts, I assume, is European, most likely Northern Europe. The southern climes tend toward simple dress. The ancient Greeks wore very functional garments. It’s the Northern Europeans who got obsessed with elaborate costumes to show their wealth and power.”

Thalia is by my side oohing over the watches. High art—painting and sculpture—is fine, but here is functional art one can put in a pocket.

“In closing,” Melissa tries to get my attention, “a third motif, not in Greek mythology’s lexicon, is the attempt to substitute lower-born women for a princess. This is a common trick in the tales, sometimes with dire consequences for the lowborn. They don’t always just get sent home.

“Similarly, the gods and goddesses are not concerned with the true bride and the false bride. Psyche struggles to be allowed to marry Cupid over Venus’s objections, but there is no false bride for Cupid. Substitution, as an attempt to escape an obligation or reroute a marriage, may be a Western concept.”

Oh, how would that musical chamber clock look and sound in my study?

Your thoughts?



Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2018 Salt – Part One

Salt Ivan Bilibin Ivan Bilibin

At Sea

It is the evening of Christmas Day, actually past midnight, making it Boxing Day. Aromas from the kitchen tell me my house brownie has put the shortbread cookies in the oven, cookies that I will take around to friends and family in the morning.

Earlier, Thalia came into my study for her bedtime story. She made me re-read The Night Before Christmas, which we had read the night before on Christmas Eve, followed by the Grimm story of her choice. She then trundled off to bed dragging Teddy behind her.

I tap out my pipe, determined to get myself to bed also, when the fairy flies into the study. Followed by Johannes the cat, and, to my surprise, the brownie. I rarely see the brownie. He stays in the shadow of the study, but still, he is here. Johannes jumps to the window seat as the fairy flutters to my bookcase, pointing her delicate finger at Russian Fairy Tales by Aleksandt Afanas’ev, turning her demanding glare at me.

I place the volume on the table, propping it up against other books, and open it to the table of contents. The fairy points to a tale called Salt. I turn the pages to the story. The fairy settles in front of the page and I take to my comfy chair.

The fairy’s voice is small, but not piping, rather a pleasant contralto. The brownie creeps closer to hear. Johannes stares out the window, but I know he is listening.

There was a merchant who had three sons. The eldest two helped their father with his business, while the youngest, named Ivan, conducted his business at alehouses and inns.

Graciously, the father gave to each of his eldest sons a ship with valuable merchandise for them to sail off to foreign lands to try their hand at selling and trading.

When Ivan heard this, he asked for the same benefit. Distrusting this son, the merchant gave him a ship with only beams, boards, and planks as cargo. Nonetheless the youngest son set out. He caught up with his brothers for a short time, but in a storm he was separated from them, and ended up at an unknown island. With a little exploring he found a salt mine. The beams, boards, and planks were thrown into the sea and the ship filled with salt.

Thalia’s fairy flutters up, pulls the page over and settles back down to continue.

“After some time,” the fairy reads, “a long time or a short time, and after they had sailed some distance, a great distance or a short one, the ship approached a large and wealthy city.”

Ivan went to the king to ask permission to trade and sell. The king inquired of Ivan’s wares and the youth presented his salt. Never having seen salt, the king thought it sand. Realizing that these people ate their meals without salt, Ivan hung around the kitchen, sneaking salt into the food being prepared.

Amazed at the meal presented to him that evening, the king called for the cooks. They had no explanation but that Ivan was hanging about the kitchen. Ivan “confessed” his trick and the king bought Ivan’s shipment at a good price.

The princess of the kingdom asked leave of her father to visit this Russian merchant’s ship, which brought such a wonder. When she was on board, Ivan’s crew weighed anchor. Finding herself abducted, the princess was of course upset, but the handsome Ivan soothed her and she relented.

Ivan’s brothers caught up with him, seized his money, abducted the abducted princess, and threw Ivan overboard. However, fortune did not abandon Ivan, and he found and hung onto one of the very boards he had cast into the sea. It carried him to another unknown island where a giant lived. The giant, knowing that the princess was about to be married to Ivan’s eldest brother, offered to carry Ivan home, provided he tell no one about the giant.

Ivan walked into the wedding meal before the service, the princess threw her arms around his neck, and declared him the true husband.

At the wedding feast after Ivan and the princess’s marriage, as Ivan and the guests got drunk and started boasting, he told of the giant. The giant appeared and threatened Ivan, who declared it was not he who told of the giant, but his drunkenness. The giant did not know about drunkenness. Ivan called for a hundred-gallon barrel of beer and a hundred-gallon barrel of wine. The giant, unfortunately, was a mean drunk, and did a good bit of damage before falling asleep for three days.

Upon awakening, the giant stated, “Well Ivan, son of the merchant, now I know what drunkenness is. Henceforth you may boast about me all you like.”

As the story ends, I look about me and this little assembly of fey folk. I am happy they include me in their company.

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2018 Salt – Part Two

Salt 1900 Ivan Ivan Bilibin

Those Russians

“A fairy tale that ends in drunkenness?” Duckworth expresses shock.

“Well, it is Russian,” I say, after relating the tale to him, but not saying a fairy told it to me. Duckworth already nibbles on the shortbread I brought to his home office.

“Let me get this straight,” he says. “A young wastrel talks his less-than-confident father into giving him a ship. He lucks upon a deposit of salt, which he sells to a king, introducing hypertension to an otherwise healthy people. Then he has the effrontery to kidnap the king’s daughter and charm her into submission?”

I listen to Duckworth’s rant while admiring the bobbleheads on his desk of Queen Elizabeth and the royal couple of William and Kate.

“Then,” he continues, “members of his dysfunctional family steal his money, take the kidnapped princess, and toss him into the drink.

“Happenchance saves him and a giant, for no good reason, offers him a free ride home. He crashes the wedding, steals the bride, who opts for her initial kidnapper as opposed to her secondary kidnapper who also practices fratricide, a choice that is certainly the lesser of two evils.

“This then is followed by the protagonist not keeping his promise to the giant. He deals with the crisis by getting the giant really, really drunk. A hundred gallons of beer and a hundred gallons of wine? My word!

“When the giant comes around, I am sure with a giant hangover, his moral basis appears to have shifted and he lets the wastrel get away with his broken promise.

“Is there supposed to be a moral in this?”

“No,” I say. “I told you, it’s Russian.”

Duckworth shakes his head and nibbles on another cookie.

“At every turn,” he complains, “the protagonist takes advantage of his situation. He talks his father into giving him a ship, chances upon the salt mine, finds a kingdom without salt, kidnaps a princess, manages to survive his brothers’ aggression, reclaims his bride, and tricks the giant. He never helps anyone else; it’s all about him. Say, what happened to the brothers when their crime was revealed?”

“Their father threw them out of the house.”

“They got off easy as well, for attempted murder. No, I find no quality in this ‘hero’ to which I can relate or use as a guidepost. Nor is there any other aspect in this story that is redeeming. Are the other Russian tales like this?”

“Well, of the few I have read, I saw a pattern of their being more for the entertainment of the tavern crowd than as cautionary tales for the young.”

“Then it is no surprise they are not as popular as the Grimm tales. At least in Grimm, evil is destroyed—if a bit too violently—rather than being rewarded, as in this case.”

“I’m not sure I see Ivan as evil,” I defend. “I’ll agree to him being self-centered, but aren’t most of us? In that we can identify with Ivan.”

“Self-centered,” Duckworth echoes. “Well, you have a point. I, for example, don’t intend to share these shortbreads with anyone else. No, wait. That may simply be pure greed.”

Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2018 Salt – Part Three

Salt Tapisserie_bato1  Bayeux Tapestry

Vikings All

“A fairy tale that ends in drunkenness? How delightful.” Augustus lights his pipe.

“Duckworth took a dimmer view of the story,” I say.

“Well, he’s young and moral, not a bad place to start from, but we should get jaded and flexible as we get along in age.”

We sit in his testing room, I sampling the ounce of his newest blend, Winter’s Eve, which he has given me, as he guards his box of shortbreads.

“But let me argue,” Augustus continues, “that Ivan may have ventured to unknown islands, but the Russians have nothing on us, here on our own little British islands, when it comes to the realm of absurdities.”

I recognize a strained segue. “You have something in mind?”

“Have you heard of Up Helly Aa?”

“Only in passing.”

“Up Helly Aa,” he goes on, “is a recently-invented tradition, created in an attempt to replace ‘tar barreling.’ ”

“Stop,” I say. “Explain tar barreling for me first.”

“It’s a practice with an uneven history. In the Shetland Islands, during Yuletide—more or less the twelve days of Christmas—young drunken men would drag a flaming barrel of tar on a sledge through towns and villages, and—as the source I read obliquely stated—caused mischief.

”In the late nineteenth century, the fun was outlawed in the Shetlands, but remains in practice elsewhere, notably in Ottery St Mary near Devon, at the other end of the UK. In this iteration it is associated with Guy Fawkes Day in November, and it occurred to the good people of Ottery St Mary to carry the flaming tar barrels around on their heads. This ancient tradition has been jeopardized by the rising need for public liability insurance, yet it persists.”

“I see,” I say, tapping out my pipe and refilling it. What is the flavoring in this tobacco? “And Up Helly Aa?”

“It is part of the Shetlands’ identity, the largest gathering being in the port town of Lerwick. After wisely abolishing tar barreling, the responsible Shetlanders knew they would need to find a replacement and substituted a torchlight parade. That was around 1876.

For a little more than two decades that was fine until someone got the grand idea to add a Viking element to the celebration. Now, on the last Tuesday of January, everyone in Lerwick becomes a Viking, which is not a stretch because most of them are of Viking blood. The entire year previous is spent in preparation. There are many ‘squads’ involved—think ‘clubs’—who each year decide on a theme, design costumes, and create mumming skits to perform.”

“Wait,” I say. “That sounds very much like the American’s Philadelphia Mummer’s Parade.

“Yes, rather, but with some differences. There is a Grand Jarl elected, who officiates. His followers are called guizers. The event goes on all day, starting with communal breakfasts, visits by the squads to all kinds of local institutions to perform their skits, then gathering at sunset in a torchlight parade, during which they drag through Lerwick a complete replica of a Viking longboat constructed for the occasion by local shipwrights. It is taken to the edge of town, surrounded by the torch-bearing guizers—up to a thousand of them—who throw their torches into the longboat, and sing the traditional Up Helly Aa song while the longboat bursts into flame.”

“Must be an impressive sight,” I muse. “But why do you bring this up in reference to Russian folktales?”

“Oh,” Augustus replies, puffing on his pipe, “after the ceremony everyone goes off to official or unofficial parties, or bars and taverns, and gets really, really drunk.”

“Of course, why did I not see that coming? Oh, wait. Peppermint, you’ve flavored the tobacco with peppermint!”

Augustus smiles.

Will absurdities never end?

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2018 The Underworld Adventure – Part One

UndAdv Nornorna_vid_UrdarbrunnenNorms at the Well of Fate, L. B. Hansen 1893

Another Wedding

It’s three in the morning. My eyes pop open and I am wide awake. This never happens to me, but I feel I am not going back to sleep. I wrap my dressing gown around me and stumble down to my study. I am awake, but my muscles and their coordination are still asleep. Perhaps, if I read a bit, I will fall back into slumber.

Staring straight ahead, I run a finger along the spines of my books on the shelves. On impulse I choose a volume.

Modern Greek Folktales, by R. M. Dawkins. I am a little startled. I came up with this volume’s companion, More Greek Folktales, the last time I did this little game of random selection. I open the volume to its table of contents and, using the Thalia method, my finger falls on The Underworld Adventure. I head for my comfy chair. Let’s see what we got.

Three brothers hear of a well at the bottom of which are three beautiful women. The brothers decide to bring up the women, the youngest brother to marry the youngest woman, the middle to marry the middle, and the eldest the eldest.

The eldest brother is lowered into the well. The women are brought up, but as the eldest and most beautiful is to be taken up, she predicts his brothers will abandon him and vie for her. She gives him two nuts containing miraculous dresses and instructs him that two sheep will soon pass by, one white and the other black. If he can grab the white sheep, it will carry him to the upper world, the black to the underworld.

He fails to catch the white, and the black then carries him to the underworld, dropping him onto the top of a tree. He rescues baby birds about to be attacked by a snake. Their monstrous bird mother, when she returns, offers to carry him back to the upper world, but he must supply her with forty sheep to eat and forty skins of water to drink during the flight.

This he does, but the supply is not quite enough and he cuts flesh from his own body to feed her, which she restores after they land.

Entering the nearest town, he takes a job with a merchant in need of an assistant. After some time the merchant is given an order to produce two dresses, one of the sun and moon, the other of the earth and flowers, but neither with stitchery or needle work—these dresses demanded by the eldest woman before she will marry the middle brother.

The eldest brother offers to get these dresses for the merchant, if he will give him wine, sweets, and raisins. Of these the assistant indulges, then opens the two nuts given to him. When the merchant gives the dresses to the bride, she knows her true husband has returned to the upper world.

During the feast before the wedding of the eldest woman and the middle brother, which the assistant and his master attend, the merchant rises and states, with words coming from God, “If I take a vine branch and set it here on the table and it grows leaves and sets fruit and gives grapes for all of us to eat, then, oh then, we may give the bride to another husband.”

Thinking it a joke, the challenge is accepted. The merchant blesses the vine branch and it immediately blossoms, maturing into grapes, enough for all.

“The bride is to be taken in marriage by the young man whom I have with me,” says the merchant,  “and I myself will set on their heads the crowns of marriage.”

And so the proper husband is restored to the bride . . .  I awake in my comfy chair, bathing in the morning light flooding my study.


Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2018 The Underworld Adventure – Part Two

undadv Phoenix-Fabelwesen Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch (1747-1822)

A Coincidence

Half a block down the street I see Melissa’s bookshop. Of course I am heading there. Ever since waking up with Modern Greek Folktales fallen into my lap, I have felt to be in a trance.

Still bleary-eyed, I enter her store. My focus returns with an almost audible snap when I spy Modern Greek Folktales sitting on her counter. I put my finger on the volume and stare at Melissa.

She looks at me, at the book, and back to me. “Are you accusing me of something?”

“No . . .  Yes . . . in a way. Why is this book here?”

“Because I am reading it.” Offense creeps into her voice.

“Were you reading it at three o’clock this morning and did you read The Underground Adventure?”

Her rising umbrage evaporates. “It called to you too? I woke and in my mind was the image of the book sitting in my ‘Stately Old Books’ section. I didn’t remember having that book on my shelves, but when I came down and looked, there it was.”

“I need a good, stout cup of tea.”

“We may need something stronger.”

“It’s early. Tea will do.”

We soon sit with teacups of steaming black tea. “Why now? Why this story?” Melissa asks.

“Let us ask what the story is about,” I suggest. “Maybe there is a clue in that.”

Melissa takes a long sip of tea. “It’s about marriage.”

“So many fairy tales are,” I say.

“It’s about the ‘true husband,’ ” Melissa adds, “rather than the ‘true bride.’”

“The ‘true husband’ is not as common,” I agree.

“Three women at the bottom of a well,” she muses.

“Great start for a fairy tale.”

Melissa ignores me. “The women are magical and yet cannot act for themselves.”

“A reflection of the attitude toward women at the time?” I suggest.

“Agreed,” she says, then goes on. “Only two magical dresses in nuts. The usual number is three. Another unusual point is that the protagonists are the eldest brother and eldest woman, and not the youngest of the two sets.”

“I assume the women are sisters.”

“The story does not say that,” Melissa warns.

“Then there are the sheep,” I say.

“Yes, the sheep. The sheep show up two times: the black and white sheep and the forty sheep as food.”

“That does suggest this story springs from a pastoral culture.”

“That is another assumption,” Melissa replies, “but I will allow it. What of the monstrous bird?”

“The phoenix popped into my head, but I have no valid reason to think that.”

Melissa sips her tea and I realize I have drained mine.

“Cutting off his flesh to feed the bird.” She frowns. “That is remarkable.”

I pour myself some more tea from the pot kept warm by its cozy. “We enter into the theme of sacrifice?”

“I am not sure how to categorize that. He does get his flesh back, softening the importance of the act in story terms.”

“And,” I state, “when he gets back to the upper world, he does not go home and claim his bride, but takes a position with a merchant.”

“The story gets odder and more unusual the more we think about it,” Melissa resolves.

“Are we any closer to answering our original question? What is the story about?”

“No,” says Melissa.

We brood over our cups of tea.


Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2018 The Underworld Adventure – Part Three

uNDaDV Charles Thomas Bale 1881 Charles Thomas Bale 1881

More Reflection

“The story,” Melissa says carefully, constructing her argument, “is in three acts. Act One: The brothers go to the well and the eldest brother is abandoned there. Act Two: The eldest brother travels to the underworld and returns. Act Three: The eldest reclaims his bride with the help of the merchant.”

“In those acts,” I contribute, “I see these larger themes. In Act One I see the theme of the traitorous brothers. We can trace this one back to the biblical Joseph, his brothers throwing him into a pit, then selling him into slavery.

“In Act Two, well, is that not the hero’s journey? A bit truncated, but still the basic elements are there: the bird as magical helper, the near defeat when all is lost before he cuts off his own flesh.

“In Act Three, I cannot help thinking about Ulysses returning home to Ithaca to find a house full of suitors for his wife, and into which he enters in disguise.”

“Oh, I like that,” says Melissa, “especially that last bit. But now I am thinking about the two eldest not only being the protagonists, but how the younger brothers and younger women hardly appear in the story. We are told they are there. However, we never hear from them. The baby chicks have far more to say and do. No, the story is about the two eldest and their travail. Everything else is peripheral.”

“Except,” I say, “the merchant, specifically in the wedding scene. When God starts to speak through him, the story belongs to the merchant and we hear from no one else, not even the two eldest.”

“Yes,” agrees Melissa, with a bit of surprise in her voice. “Which is again unusual when you consider the story starts with the brothers going to and descending into a well. That’s pure pagan imagery.”

I look at my empty second cup of tea that I don’t remember drinking. “I am feeling suspicious that our God was tacked onto the end of this tale at a later date, much like Grimms’ Girl without Hands.  In the 1812 version, the story is quite pagan, but by the last edition Wilhelm has added an angel into the conclusion.”

“We,” smiles Melissa, “have now fallen into talking about older tales becoming victims of newer mores and we drift from our original purpose.”

“Again,” I return the smile.

“What is the story about,” Melissa restates, “and why did it call to us?”

“Right,’ I say, “let’s stick with it being about the two eldest struggling to marry and we’ll leave God out of it. “

“No, we should not,” Melissa say. (I think she is changing course.) “I observed when we started this conversation that the magical women could not act for themselves. For all of the eldest woman’s insight, she is powerless.

“The eldest brother’s courage is tested, he battles the snake and cuts flesh from his body. But by the end of the tale, he has given over his authority to the merchant, who is being instructed by God. Both she and he have ended up in the hands of fate.”

Why the word ‘fate’ triggers my memory I do not know.

“This is my anniversary,” I say.

“Of?” Melissa’s eyes widen.

“My marriage.”

Melissa exhales, “Mine as well. The tale called to us because it is about marriage after all, just as I first stated.”

We are quiet for some time.

“May I ask?” Melissa looks at me. “When did she die?”

My heart contracts. “Many years ago. In childbirth,” is all I can answer. Melissa does not press me.

“And you?” I ask.

“I think,” she sighs, “I ended up marrying the middle brother. Not the one who was meant for me.”

Your thoughts?

Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2018 Blue Beard – Part One

Bluebeard Gustave Dore Gustave Dore

Halloween Treats

Halloween is about tradition. Of course traditions have to start somewhere, and in our new tradition, Melissa—dressed as a witch, hiding as best she can her red hair—takes Thalia around the neighborhood. Much booty, dropped into a paper bag, is to be gotten this way.

I suggested to Thalia she costume herself as a fairy or an ogress, but to my disappointment she chose to be a princess.

The culmination of the evening occurs in my study. I build a fire in the hearth and turn out the lights. Thalia feasts on her take as Melissa reads us an uncanny tale.

“It will be a Grimm story,” Melissa announces and Thalia applauds. “One of the omitted tales,” Melissa continues. “Blue Beard.”

“Omitted?” asks Thalia.

“It was in the 1812 edition, but dropped from the last edition. Perhaps Wilhelm thought it too violent.”

Thalia grins broadly in anticipation. Melissa, still dressed in her witch’s costume and squinting in the low light, begins.

A man, who has three sons and a daughter, is approached by a king who wishes to marry the girl. The honor is too great for the father to refuse, despite the king’s unsettling blue beard.

The daughter consents to the marriage with trepidation and asks her brothers to come to her aid if needed. They promise to come at her call.

All goes well in her new home. All her desires are fulfilled. She would have been happy except, in the presence of her husband, the blue beard makes her uneasy.

Before leaving on a long trip, Blue Beard gives her the key to the castle, including a small golden key she must not use on pain of death.

Thalia sits in Melissa’s lap, wide-eyed, munching caramel corn.

Having the keys, the girl explores all the rooms of the castle, filled with treasures, until only the one opened by the golden key remains.

Curiosity, be it creative or destructive, causes her to open the last door.

In that room hangs the decimated bodies of Blue Beard’s previous wives. Blood courses across the floor. The golden key falls from the lock onto the floor and into the blood.

Horrified, she tries to wipe the blood from the key, but as she cleans one side the blood appears on the other.

Thalia stops munching and peers off into space.

Blue Beard returns and soon asks for the keys. She has removed the golden key from the ring. He notices and demands her death. She pleads to say her final prayers and this he grants. She goes upstairs and calls out to her brothers, who, mysteriously despite the distance, can hear her.

Blue Beard, annoyed by the delay, threatens to come upstairs and drag her away, which he does, but not in time to prevent the brothers from coming to the rescue. They hang his body in the room with his former wives, the treasures of the castle now belonging to his surviving wife.

“Wow,” Thalia admires, then inspects her bag for more treats.

I throw a few more logs on the fire. “Another wonderfully odd tale from the Grimms.”

“And appropriate for the times,” says Melissa.

“How so?”

“I am thinking of the #MeToo movement.”

“Really,” I say. “I am not seeing the connection.”

“Thalia is falling asleep.” Melissa looks fondly at her charge. “I’d better put her to bed.”

Thalia’s eyes are closed; her hand is in her goody bag, but not moving.

“We need to talk on this,” I say. “I’ll go find a bottle of wine.”

“Red,” she says.


Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2018 Blue Beard – Part Two

Bluebeard-Beauge-Bertall Beauge Bertall

Poe Anyone?

Melissa takes off her witch’s hat, her red hair falling from underneath it, settles into one of my comfy chairs, and sips her glass of wine. “Before I start grinding my axe,” she begins, “what do you see in the story?”

I sense a pit opening up before me in which to fall. ”Well, we have seen the woman with the key opening a door or a box many times in these tale—and myths for that matter. The consequences are uniformly bad. The woman’s weakness is always curiosity and the breaking of a promise not to peek. Let me agree right away neither of these infractions deserves a death penalty.”

Melissa ignores my attempt at cover. “Is curiosity a weakness in men?”

I hear the first passing swoosh of the pendulum blade. “Ah,” I say, thinking hard as I open my mouth. “In the tales, curiosity is reserved for women. Men will go adventuring to find answers, but that is not called curiosity. I see your point.”

Melissa nods. “Logically—and I know better than to apply logic to fairy tales, but bear with me for argument’s sake—logically, if Blue Beard did not want the heroine to enter the forbidden room, he would not have given her the key.”

I hear the pendulum on its returning pass. I stare at my wine glass. I haven’t drunk any. Melissa’s is already half empty.

“Where is the #MeToo in Blue Beard?” I ask. “It was told long, long before social media existed.”

Melissa laughs a little. “This social media debate is the present-day iteration about the concept behind The Fall.”

“As in Adam and Eve?”

“As in Eve,” she replies. “The Fall is blamed on Eve. Adam gets off as being only a witless accomplice.”

I hear the pendulum again; a little closer this time.

Melissa takes a long sip of wine. “Eve eats an apple from the Tree of Knowledge and becomes the equal of God. That act God cannot tolerate and he expels her from the Garden along with her sidekick, Adam, condemning her to eventual death.

“The girl in Blue Beard uses the golden key and obtains knowledge about her husband. This is enlightenment, which he cannot tolerate and condemns her to death.

“In both cases, God and Blue Beard allow access to the forbidden knowledge. In both cases they tempt their adversary, who, in both cases are guileless, innocently trapped into the machinations of the male figures.”

Hey rats, gnaw on those leather straps that bind me. I haven’t much time.

“You might,” I suggest, “get struck by lightning for comparing God to Blue Beard.”

Melissa narrows her eyes. “It’s been said God created man in his own image and man returned the compliment. I take it the masculine aspect of our culture needs the feminine to be subjugated or she will rival and become equal to the male persona, be it a god’s or a king’s.”


Subjugate,” I echo. “If I understand you that is the operative word.”

Melissa raises a finger and takes another sip. “Thank you for understanding me. This is an argument my former husband could not consider.”

The pendulum blade disappears in mid-arc. I am a little embarrassed I had not seen this connection before. I did not suppose that the #MeToo movement addresses a problem as ancient as our creation story.


Fairy Tale of the Month: October 2018 Blue Beard – Part Three

Bluebeard Walter Crane Walter Crane

King Conomor

I pour Melissa some more wine and finally take a sip of my own.

“In defense of men,” I say, “it is her brothers who come to the rescue.”

“Granted, but now we enter into family relationships, different from other social bonds. Men will treat their mothers and sisters differently than any other women. The brothers’ rescue of their sister does not water down my observation of the overriding social divide between the masculine and the feminine.”

I feel compelled to change the topic to another aspect of the story.

“Why a blue beard?” I offer up for discussion.

“Indeed,” says Melissa. “Does it have anything to do with blue blood?”

“That’s a stretch.”

“Maybe not. In the late medieval period blue became one of the colors of royalty; the court of Louis IX to be specific. Blue Beard was described as a king.”

I take another sip of wine. “I was thinking, the blue beard served at a sort of stigmata, simply marking him as different from everyone else. Even above the law, you might say. However, I don’t think I have run into any other blue beards.”

Melissa stares into the fire’s flames as she speaks. “When I decided to read this story to Thalia I did some research. I didn’t find any blue beards in the story’s variants, not even Mr. Fox, its best-known relative.

“I did find a Welsh legend of the medieval king Conomor, a historic figure. A story is woven around this actual king that he killed his first three wives before marrying the fourth, Tryphine. She finds the secret room where relics of the former wives are kept. She prays for their souls and their ghosts appear to warn her that Conomor will kill her when she becomes pregnant because of the prophecy he will be killed by his son.

“When she does become pregnant, she flees but is caught and beheaded by Conomor. Saint Gildas restores Tryphine to life and returns with her to Conomor. His castle collapses around him and he is killed.”

“Did Conomor have a blue beard?” I ask.

“Not that the legend tells us.”

“Perhaps the beard is Charles Perrault’s invention; the Grimms’ stole that story from him, you know. But,” I enjoin, “let’s change the color of our conversation. What about the golden key?”

“Yes!” exclaims Melissa. “What an image. Blood wiped from one side of the key appears on the other. I’ll guess that is another Perrault addition. Do you recall Grimms’ The Fitcher’s Bird, where the heroine is obliged to carry around an egg that gets stained with blood in the forbidden chamber?”

The Fitcher’s Bird, of course. “I know it well. It is as close a relative as Mr. Fox.”

“Let me propose,” Melissa straightens herself in the comfy chair, “that The Fitcher’s Bird is much closer to the origins of this motif than Perrault’s version.”

“Go on.” I am delighted. I think I know where this is going.

“Charles Perrault was a skilled writer, writing for a court audience, not for scholars. Whatever tale he drew his version from I feel safe guessing he edited out what he didn’t like and added his own spin.

“The Grimms, while they were not shy of making changes in the tales, were scholars in search of the German folk-voice and allowed the folk messiness of The Fitcher’s Bird to remain in the story.

“The egg almost has to be a pagan holdover. For me, that suggests The Fitcher’s Bird predates Perrault’s Blue Beard, even though the latter was published a decade before the former.”

Raising my glass, I say, “Well argued.”

Your thoughts?




Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2018 Sweetheart Roland – Part One

Sweetheart Roland oneArthur Rackham

It’s Saturday

Saturday and I have a special relationship. Saturday is when I take Thalia to Serious Books to purchase her reading for the week. If no other time, this is when I get to visit with Melissa Serious. That Thalia’s room is filling up with books worries her mother, who claims books accumulate dust, invoking the threat of allergies. I will hear none of it.

Augustus has a bell above his door in the tobacco shop to announce customers. Melissa has no such thing. One can slip in and out without notice, as Melissa usually has her nose buried in a book and may not see you.

Thalia, of course, declares her arrival and rushes to Melissa for a hug. Melissa is a little startled, so deep into what she is reading.

After the hug, I knit my brow at Melissa in question as to what absorbs her attention. Thalia is running off to her section of the bookstore, but does a 180-degree turn when Melissa says, “I am angered by this fairy tale.”

“Which tale?” asks Thalia.

I sense Melissa’s embarrassment at drawing Thalia into her personal conflict with a tale, but Melissa does not falter.

Sweetheart Roland,” she says, opening her book again and reading to us.

The evil and ugly daughter of a witch covets the apron of her kind and lovely stepsister. The witch decides to kill her stepdaughter while she sleeps. However, the good daughter overhears their plan and arranges things so that the witch, in the dark of night, murders her own daughter.

The girl runs off to her sweetheart Roland, saying they must flee. Roland suggests she steal the witch’s wand. This the girl does, also taking the head of her stepsister, letting three drops of blood fall; one at the foot of the bed, one in the hallway, and one in the kitchen.

In the morning, the witch calls to her daughter to give her the apron and the drop of blood in the hallway answers. Seeing no one there, the witch calls again and the drop of blood in the kitchen answers. On the third call, the blood in the bedroom answers and the witch finds her beheaded daughter. Putting on her seven-league boots, she takes off after the girl.

Seeing her coming, the girl uses the wand to turn Roland into a lake and herself into a duck. For all the bread crumbs the witch casts onto the water, the duck is not lured in and at night the witch returns home.

The couple resumes their human form and they travel all night. In the morning the girl turns herself into a flower inside a briar patch and Roland into a fiddler.

When the witch appears again she recognizes the flower in the briar patch as the girl and asks the fiddler if she may pick it. He agrees, but as soon as the witch climbs into the briars, he plays a tune on his fiddle, forcing the witch to dance about, getting lashed by the thorns until she bleeds to death.

Roland returns to his father to prepare for a wedding and the girls waits for Roland in the form of a red stone. Roland does not return, being ensnared by another woman.

The girl changes herself into a flower and is picked by a shepherd and put into a chest. To the shepherd’s surprise, some mysterious being is now cleaning his house and preparing his meals. A wisewoman tells him to rise very early and throw a white cloth over anything that moves. This he does when he sees the flower coming out of the chest, and it turns back into the girl. The shepherd wants to marry her, but she only agrees to keep house for him.

Soon she hears Roland is to be married. Heartbroken, she does not want to go to the wedding, but the other girls come and take her away with them to sing songs to the bridal couple. When Roland hears her, his memory returns. He declares she is the true bride and he will have no other.

“Humph, I don’t like Roland,” Thalia grouses.

“Nor do I,” agrees Melissa.

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2018 Sweetheart Roland – Part Two

Sweetheart Roland two Illustration 1909

The Sweetheart

“That’s Grimm, isn’t it?” I whisper after Thalia is far enough away, safely ensconced in “her” aisle.

“And a little too typical for my taste,” replied Melissa.

I take a seat in one of her overstuffed chairs.

“It sounds like a perfectly good tale to me,” I say, and see her expression shift, telegraphing that I am going to regret my words.

“Perfectly good tale?” she shrills a bit. “I should say not. I am happy Thalia sensed its failings as I have.”

“What failings?” I protest.

“Wilhelm Grimm’s view of women.” She takes a seat across from mine.

Half my mind knows better than to argue a politically incorrect point, but the other half pushes on.

“What?” I demand.

“Wilhelm makes two assumptions about women. First, women are keen on seeing each other as rivals, to the point of murder. There is no sense of ‘brotherhood’ among them. Second, men are naturally superior with no need to defend that position.”

Ouch. This is going to be hard. She’s thought this out.

“Give me a ‘for example,’” I challenge.

“All of Sweetheart Roland,” Melissa returns.

“I really don’t think Wilhelm set out to be offensive to women,” I say.

“And that is my point. He made assumptions. He didn’t think about his depiction of his female protagonists. He represents women as being their own worst enemies. It is the girl’s own stepmother and stepsister who plot against her for the possession of an apron. Note, the stepfather is nowhere mentioned and therefore blameless whether he is alive or dead.”

“He’s really kind of nonexistent in this tale,” I comment.

“True. Wilhelm shows a women’s world full of female backstabbers. Let’s visit Cinderella, Snow White, the Three Forest Gnomes, The Goose Girl, even Hansel and Gretel; mothers, witches, servants, and siblings try to destroy the heroines. What sort of role model are they for Thalia?”

I shift uneasily in my chair. She’s got me close to home on that one.

“Wait, there are evil men in the Grimm tales. What about Bluebeard?”

“For every evil male, Wilhelm tells tales of ten evil females.”

I haven’t counted them up, but that is probably true.

“However,” Mellissa continues, “when Wilhelm does have an evil male, the culprit is usually waylaying some poor female. And here I will give Wilhelm credit; the heroine will best the antagonist and come out on top.”

“I am glad you give Wilhelm a little credit. He haunts my study sometimes, you know.”

“No, I didn’t know, but I am not surprised. I should not be there when he does.”

I smile. “What of your objection to Roland?”

Melissa takes a deep breath. “I have sworn not to utter my former husband’s name and I will not. But his image rises before me as I read Sweetheart Roland.”

I am not even going to try to win this argument. I have stepped on Melissa’s toes.

Melissa launches into her point, “I did my research. I read to you the final 1857 version. In the 1812 version the girl has already taken the wand and dripped the drops of blood before she goes to Roland. Apparently, on rewrite, Wilhelm sensed Roland’s uselessness and gave him a role in their escape by suggesting she steal the wand. Making him even more distasteful in my eyes, Wilhelm presents Roland as self-seeking, though I think he did not intend too.

“Then, after the girl destroys the witch, he goes and gets stolen by another woman. Wilhelm uses the word ‘ensnared’ that does not suggest magic, for which we could have forgiven him. Rather, Roland seems to have given into his immediate sensual desires; the girl, after all, is a red stone at this point and forgettable. Wilhelm does not identify this as a fault of character.”

I think she is being a little hard on Roland, but I will keep my mouth shut.

Thalia appears with her stack of books, ready to check out. I notice the title Wind in the Willows in her pile. She may not be a fan of Roland, but she is a fan of good literature.

Fairy Tale of the Month: September 2018 Sweetheart Roland – Part Three

Sweetheart Roland threeWalter Crane

Disembodied Voices

“Three drops of blood,” Augustus repeats the subject of my inquiry through a cloud of tobacco smoke thickening the air between our comfy chairs. “To which story do you refer? The Goose Girl? Snow White?”

Sweetheart Roland,” I say.

“Oh, but you do like the obscure ones.”

Augustus pauses to collect his thoughts. “The three drops of blood have a long lineage, going back to at least the Arthurian legends with no one less than Percival seeing three drops of blood in the snow that remind him of his sweetheart’s countenance; her pale skin and rosy cheeks. This image probably predates Percival

“In the fairy tales the most prominent colors are white, red, and black. There is a formula here. If the colors are white and red only that is an indication of the demonic. The hounds of hell are white dogs with red ears.

“It is not until the color black comes into the story, usually in the form of a crow, that the image relates to mortals. More than once in the tales, a queen sees a crow that has downed its prey in the snow, it’s victim’s blood spilling onto the ground, and the queen wishes for a daughter with skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as dark as the crow.”

“What,” I ask, “do the three drops of blood represent in Sweetheart Roland?”

“Let me start with what they don’t represent. I have read a number of academic papers that argue the three drops of blood symbolize a young woman’s start of menstruation, loss of maidenhood, and birth of a child, which is appealing in intellectual terms, but that argument does not consider the tale’s audience.

“The tale’s audience was the peasantry. They routinely slaughtered animals for their meals. Blood was as common to the peasant as water, not the mysterious province of women.

“I will allow in the cities there were butchers, who began to separate their customers from the blood of what they ate, but the culture at that time was still largely rural and that is where the tales were being told. Blood was a common talisman, like garlic and iron, to be used against evil.”

I know our concentration on our topic is deep. I can hardly see Augustus through the dense smoke we are creating. We think and we puff.

“What interests me,” Augustus goes on, “is inanimate objects talking.”

“As in the three drops of blood in Sweetheart Roland,” I say.

“Exactly. The most famous, of course, is the magic mirror in Snow White, which also contains the three-drops-of-blood motif, but there they have no voice.”

“What jumps to my mind,” I say, “is The Horned Women.”

“Good example,” Augustus agrees. “The barred door, the cakes made with the children’s blood, and the half-sewn cloak all speak audibly to the twelve witches.”

“I will rephrase my original question. What is the role of these talking things?”

“Limited,” Augustus smiles. “Take the magic mirror. It, very appropriately, appeals to or upsets the evil queen’s vanity. In The Horned Women, the door, cakes, and cloak only confess why they cannot aid the witches. In Sweetheart Roland, the three drops of blood are planted to delay the witch, if not for very long, but when one is fleeing every second may count.

“Talking objects are not all-knowing. They have one, small, defined purpose in their particular story. Seldom do they give advice. The exception that comes to me is the spirit of the spring in The Horned Women, who instructs the woman of the house in how to proceed. But even then, it is a spirit and not the spring itself that is the helper.”

“Disembodied voices,” I contemplate. “This is the stuff of the dream-world.”

“Fairy tales are our waking dreams,” Augustus says with finality.

Your thoughts?